We think many readers will agree that democracy in America has taken a beating over the past several decades. In particular, since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision 10 years ago this month, ever greater amounts of money have flooded our electoral process. The dangers posed by unregulated corporations have become increasingly evident to the average person. Still, the effects are insidious. All of us have learned to speak the language of commerce, and do it with scarcely a thought: hospital patients are now health care consumers; library patrons have become customers; even the word “citizen” has been replaced with “voter,” “taxpayer,” or “stakeholder.”
Heights Of Democracy
As the winter solstice approaches, we consider events of the past year and our hopes for the future.
Cleveland Heights City Council kicked off 2019 by establishing the Refuse and Recycling Task Force. Composed of residents and city staff members, the group’s charge was to address the need to modernize our collection system, tackle the perennial debate over bags versus carts, and recommend future actions.
We urge everyone to read the task force’s findings, which will be released early in 2020. Meanwhile, the group’s agendas, minutes, e-mails and other documents are available at www.clevelandheights.com. As we said last year (“Heights of Democracy: Trash talk,” Heights Observer Vol. 11, Issue 12), we oppose privatizing this essential service.
Regardless of how the Issue 26 vote goes on Nov. 5, we, the people of Cleveland Heights, will be called upon to help our city make a transition to more effective and accountable city government.
As residents, citizens and, most of all, as neighbors, it will be up to us to heal the rifts of a bruising campaign. We either will or will not have a charter amendment changing our municipal government from a council/manager to a mayor/council form; but certainly there will be disappointed and worried people on whichever is the losing side.
As regular readers of this column know, we enthusiastically endorse a step toward a brighter future for our city: Issue 26, the Cleveland Heights city charter amendment providing for a directly elected mayor and a professional city administrator appointed with council approval.
During several years’ attendance at Committee of the Whole (CoW) meetings—council’s working sessions, held most Mondays—we have seen that our current system can allow the city manager to withhold important information from council and the public. Furthermore, employment law requires that all discussions about city employees, up to and including the city manager, occur in executive session, from which the public is barred and of which there is no public record.
Don’t worry—Cleveland Heights has not lost its collective mind. As a community, we’re struggling with how to improve our government. Some of us believe we need systemic change; others are convinced such change would be a mistake.
We who favor changing to the kind of government you have are optimistic. We look forward to electing a mayor as the full-time executive of our city, who will appoint a professional city administrator to manage daily operations. That mayoral administration will be checked and balanced by a legislative body, our elected city council.
In his opinion in the July Heights Observer, “History proves council-manager plan works well,” former Cleveland Heights council member and one-time mayor Alan Rapoport profiled Frank Cain, the city’s first mayor, who held the office for 32 years. After being directly elected himself in 1914, when Cleveland Heights was a village of 3,000, Mayor Cain led the charter commission that ultimately called for seven council members elected at large, and an appointed city manager. (In 1914 and in 1921, when the new charter was approved, only men could vote.)
Surely no one ever was more confident than Cain that his fellow council members would select him to be mayor, as they did for the following three decades. By all accounts, he did a great job. He also benefited from being in the right place at the right time, leading a wealthy suburb of the booming city of Cleveland during the Roaring ‘20s.
We applaud Cleveland Heights for a recent national honor. Out of 66 plans adopted during 2018, the city’s Complete and Green Streets policy was named best in the country by the National Complete Streets Coalition, a project of Smart Growth America. (See related article on page 9 of the print issue.)
In particular, the policy garnered praise for attention to detail, binding language, and balancing the needs of all users, according to WCPN-FM.
We’re highlighting it here because its creation and adoption were driven by citizens, ably supported by CH City Council and staff.
If you have owned a house in Cleveland Heights or University Heights, at some point you may have received from your city housing department a list of code violations, with a deadline for correcting them. It might have arrived following a systematic (routine) inspection of your home or rental unit, or a point of sale inspection (POS). Regardless, it’s only human to grumble a little before getting down to the work of bringing our properties up to code.
Most of us understand, however, that code enforcement is key to protecting our greatest assets as older communities: safe, healthy, attractive and, in many cases, historically significant housing. In addition, regular inspections of rental properties can ensure the rights and well being of renters.
Last month, we wrote that we support the objective of Citizens for an Elected Mayor to change Cleveland Heights’ form of government via charter amendment. Now, we want to explain why.
Our interest in the intricate workings of city government dates to 2015, when CH City Council and the city manager attempted to privatize our water service. Since then, between us we have attended well over 100 meetings of the committee of the whole—the weekly working sessions of city council—along with about 50 regular bi-weekly council meetings.
We have observed City Manager Tanisha Briley grappling with a host of problems created by her predecessor, Robert Downey, whose tenure lasted more than 25 years, until his sudden departure in 2012. Plainly speaking, he left behind a mess.
A couple of years ago, a group of Cleveland Heights residents began agitating for a change in the city’s form of government. Specifically, they wanted to switch from a largely ceremonial mayor chosen by city council to a full-time chief executive elected by citizens. This change would require an amendment to the city charter and approval by the voters. News of these stirrings prompted CH City Council to appoint a Charter Review Commission (CRC) for the first time since the 1980s.
The CRC recently completed its work and presented to council a First Amended Charter. Council members will now determine which elements of the proposed amended charter to accept, modify, or reject. Unless council rejects the CRC’s work in its entirety, the adoption of the First Amended Charter will be on the November 2019 ballot for the people to vote up or down.
By the early 1970s, Cleveland Heights faced realtor actions that, if unchecked, would lead to white flight and resegregation. Real estate agents steered white buyers away from the city, and showed black buyers only a few neighborhoods within it. Blockbusting, intended to induce panic and white flight, took place by phone. When the first black family moved onto a street, realtors would call the neighbors, insinuating that their property values were about to plummet.
At the same time, things were changing at CH City Hall. Activists Jack Boyle and Lucille Huston were elected to Cleveland Heights City Council in 1971. In 1972, the newly configured council chose pro-integration attorney Oliver Schroeder as mayor. Schroeder and four other suburban mayors agreed to enact ordinances banning telephone solicitation by realtors. Cleveland Heights council passed the new law within weeks.
“It was scary because of the attention we got,” recalled Doris Allen. She and her husband Wendell purchased a gracious house on Lee Road in 1965. Although theirs was one of the first black families to move to Cleveland Heights, they weren’t looking to make a point, to be pioneers or activists, or to put their young family in danger. They simply wanted their five children, then between the ages of 1 and 10, to grow up in a racially, ethnically and religiously diverse community.
While Heights Citizens for Human Rights (HCHR) reached out to the Allens, others were not so welcoming. Police stopped their eldest son, still in elementary school, and questioned him for no apparent reason. When Wendell Allen went to a nearby store the proprietor asked, “Why don’t you shop in your own neighborhood?”
How many transformative social movements have started over a pot of coffee?
Just as the campaign to stop the freeways from decimating the near East Side suburbs was driven by women through a network of garden clubs, the movement to integrate Cleveland Heights began with a handful of women in a living room. In the early 1960s, some Cleveland Heights residents involved in the struggle for school desegregation in Cleveland began to question the virtually all-white composition of their own neighborhoods and schools, and to focus their attention closer to home.
If there’s one subject that gets Cleveland Heights residents riled up, it’s trash collection. The pros and cons of plastic bags vs. wheeled carts are hotly debated on social media. CH City Council members frequently find themselves confronted by constituents with strong opinions.
At an Oct. 22 meeting of council’s Safety and Municipal Services Committee, City Manager Tanisha Briley noted this is the third time during her five-year tenure that the city has considered major changes to its handling of refuse and recycling. About two dozen residents squeezed into city hall’s executive conference room to hear what staff and council members had to say, and to make their concerns known.
At various points around Cleveland Heights and University Heights, you can find the message “Lake Erie Starts Here” stenciled on residential streets. In each case, an arrow points to a storm-drain grate. These words remind us that any litter or toxic waste dumped in the roadway will eventually be washed into a drain, and from there into our local streams—which in turn empty into Lake Erie a few miles north of here.
Lake Erie, of course, is the source of our drinking water, as well as home to food fish and the organisms they eat, and a place where residents of and visitors to four states and the province of Ontario come to swim and sail.
Andrew Carnegie said, in 1903, “Free libraries maintained by the people are cradles of democracy, and their spread can never fail to extend and strengthen the democratic idea[.]” At a recent public meeting, Nancy Levin, Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library System director, echoed Carnegie when she called her organization “a facilitator of democracy.” We decided to explore how the Heights libraries function as part of the infrastructure of local democracy.
On the evening of July 9, Lolly the Trolley threaded its way through Cleveland Heights’ Noble neighborhood, stopping every few minutes in front of a vacant and dilapidated house. The trolley’s passengers were not tourists. They were Cleveland Heights City Council members and staff, hosted by Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC), an ecumenical social justice organization.
GCC determined in 2016 that “ongoing decay of many Cleveland Heights houses and buildings” was one of the “most pressing issues” facing our city. Now the organization was highlighting 19 problem properties in the north end of town. GCC members wanted officials to see the peeling paint, sagging steps, missing shingles, listing garages, piles of trash, uncut grass and overgrown shrubbery—unmistakable signs of blight.
5G wireless technology is coming. Municipalities throughout the country have been suing state governments to try to retain some local control over the placement of small cell antennas and associated equipment. According to Crain’s Cleveland Business, the telecommunications industry wants to install 100,000 antennas a year nationally over the next five years. Wireless companies, however, have been unhappy about the labyrinthine task of securing permits from tens of thousands of local governments.
Enter ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the corporate-funded, self-described think tank is only too happy to supply model state legislation pre-empting local ordinances to regulate the permits, fees and aesthetics of wireless equipment. And the Ohio General Assembly appears only too delighted to have had ALEC’s help.
In many Cuyahoga County cities, an owner may not transfer (sell or otherwise convey) a property without a point of sale (POS) inspection. Cleveland Heights was an “early adopter” of POS inspections, back in the 1980s, because a far-sighted city council recognized them as a vital tool for maintaining the city’s greatest asset, its historic housing stock. Our city was ahead of its time, and this has served us well.
One thing we can all agree on is that we elect our local officials to see to the running of our cities. We expect them to make sure streets are paved, sewers function, parks and recreation facilities are well-maintained, and taxes are spent prudently and wisely. In other words, we expect them to tend to local concerns.
But cities, and their residents, exist in an economic and social climate largely determined by the actions of state and federal governmental bodies. To what extent should mayors and councils officially advocate or oppose policies and legislation outside of their jurisdiction? Recent discussions by the Cleveland Heights City Council got us thinking about this question.
Property tax abatements are a controversial subject, and rightfully so. When Cleveland Heights residents dutifully pay our—notoriously high—property taxes, only to learn that neighbors purchasing units in some new developments will pay a mere fraction of their high-end home’s assessed value for up to a decade, we understandably bristle. It doesn’t feel like “equal treatment under the law”—a cornerstone of our democracy. It seems more like a subsidy to already wealthy people.
In a democracy, and yes, in a democratic republic, real victories small and large are only won when we, the people, stand up for our rights. Elected officials do not hand us such victories; we must claim them ourselves, over and over again. Participation in a democracy can be difficult, messy, inconvenient, frustrating and even boring. Often, we take three steps forward and two steps back (and sometimes, unfortunately, vice versa). But without our active involvement, there can be no democracy at all.
In the past several weeks we have seen dramatic examples of democratic action in response to crises, as high school students in Parkland, Fla., and public school teachers throughout West Virginia have stood up to authority and demanded action.
In our January column, we wrote about the history of Democracy Day in Cleveland Heights. Since we were writing for the Heights Observer, we kept our focus local. However, Robert Shwab’s letter to the editor in response to that column, published in the February issue, takes a national view. That letter contained some misconceptions, which several readers have asked us to address.
When times are prosperous, neighborhoods are harmonious, and public services are delivered without interruption, we assume municipal government is working well. If roads are crumbling, storm sewers are backing up, and crime seems to be increasing, our local government must be at fault, right?
Of course, it’s never that simple. When state and federal governments cut off major streams of funding, municipalities must scramble to fill the gaps by cutting services or raising taxes and fees, or often by a combination of both. Other than looking to increasingly scarce sources of local news, and consulting the city’s website, how can residents know what their elected and appointed officials are up to?
On Thursday, Jan. 25, Cleveland Heights City Council will convene the city’s fifth annual Democracy Day, and you, dear reader, are most cordially invited.
For the uninitiated, Democracy Day gives the public an opportunity to address council about how the political influence of corporate entities, added to obscene amounts of money spent in the political process, is degrading the democratic institutions of our city, our state and our nation. Following the hearing each year, a letter stating the reason for the event and summarizing citizens’ remarks is sent by council to our U.S. senators, our U.S. congress member, and the presidents of the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House. That letter, the full text of the petition, plus written minutes and a video, can be viewed on the city’s website under Government, Archived Agendas and Minutes, Public Hearings.
Kathy Flora, a Cleveland Heights resident and immigration activist, shared these stories at the Nov. 1 meeting of Cleveland Heights City Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee:
“Beatriz did not give a wide enough berth to a patrol car that was stopping someone else. She was . . . rapidly deported, leaving behind her grieving husband and four children. She was dumped over the Mexican border . . . in a notoriously dangerous city that preys on these vulnerable United States throwaways. She was robbed twice.
In a democracy, “We the People” are sovereign—not “we the judges,” “we the corporations,” or even “we the elected officials.” In a monarchy, the monarch is sovereign. In a democratic republic, the primary way most of us can express ourselves as a free and sovereign people is in the voting booth. No wonder Americans have fought to expand the franchise since the early days of the republic, when only white male landowners could vote.
Of course, voting is not only a right, but a responsibility, and that entails much more than getting to the polls. As voters we are responsible for learning as much as possible about candidates and issues before marking our ballots. With a corporate media pandering for the apparently unlimited sums of money now routinely spent on political ads, that’s a real challenge.
Proportionally, our votes count most in municipal elections, yet that’s exactly when Americans are least likely to cast a ballot. For a project “Who Votes for Mayor?” Portland State University researchers analyzed 23 million voting records to understand participation in the most recent local elections in 50 U.S. cities. Among their key findings:
- When municipal elections are held in even-numbered years, and especially when they coincide with presidential contests, voter participation is much higher than in off-year elections.
- In 10 of America’s 30 largest cities, turnout in municipal elections was less than 15 percent.
- Voters 65 and older are 15 times more likely to cast a local ballot than those between the ages of 18 and 34.
Most Cleveland Heights residents will never find themselves in municipal court, but its activities affect the safety and quality of life of all of us. We rely on it when a neighbor fails to bring her/his house up to code, when a speeding driver endangers pedestrians and other motorists, when a woman is threatened or beaten by her domestic partner.
On Nov. 7, Cleveland Heights voters will choose a replacement for Cleveland Heights Municipal Court Judge A. Deane Buchanan, who is retiring due to age limits. Vying to succeed Buchanan are attorneys James Costello, Naydeen Hayden and DeAngelo Little.
Every human language is constantly changing, as people grapple with explaining, describing and understanding our world. This is a good thing; languages that never change die. The words we choose to label ideas, objects and people evolve, and our usage changes the words themselves.
Of course, as we are all aware, this is not strictly an organic process. Powerful players go to great lengths (with great means at their disposal) to change the meanings of words in ways both subtle and not.
For instance, we now have the “sharing economy.” This moniker is used to describe relatively new arrangements whereby people rent out space (in their homes, in the case of Airbnb) or charge for services (providing taxi service in their personal vehicles, as with Uber and Lyft). If this co-optation of “sharing” to denote commercial relationships sticks, it will be interesting to see how we eventually describe an act of generosity that does not involve payment.
An impressive group of nonprofit organizations, [many] dedicated to education and the arts, make their homes in the building that was once Coventry Elementary School, which was closed by the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District in 2007.
The first nonprofit to move in was Ensemble Theatre, in 2011; the most recent is Artful Cleveland, which leased space in July 2016, opened its doors in March 2017, and now provides studio space to 18 artists.
Many of us first learned about America’s Progressive Era in history classes. Lasting from the 1890s to the 1920s, it was drawing to a close when Cleveland Heights voters first approved a city charter in August 1921.
According to Marian J. Morton, in her book Cleveland Heights: The Making of an Urban Suburb: “Reflecting contemporary efforts to reform local government, the charter provided for nonpartisan elections of the city council and a city manager, who would be chosen by council for his [sic] professional expertise. The seven members of Cleveland Heights Council chose the mayor from their own ranks.”
Cleveland Heights could be about to undertake an interesting community conversation. CH City Council recently introduced legislation to appoint a charter review commission; the first since 1982. Among the many issues the commission may consider is the city’s form of government. We have been intrigued for some time by how our city’s government differs from those of neighboring suburbs.
From the local to the global, the ability of people to govern ourselves has been under assault for many decades. We can expect this to intensify for multiple reasons, including:
- Business corporations seeking huge profits by converting what once had been “public” to “private” (called privatization, though a more descriptive term would be “corporatization”), including traditional public assets such as water and sewer systems, roads, police and fire protection, airports, hospitals and schools.
- Individuals looking to increase their power, status and/or privileges by concentrating decision-making from many ("We the People" and government) to a few (their own) hands.
- Continual legal and constitutional definitions that further restrict and redefine “public” arenas as other “p” words: private, property, proprietary, privileged—and thus [place them] beyond the reach of public planning, shaping and evaluation.
- A national government that uses the excuse of “terrorism” to stifle dissent, intimidate dissenters and interrupt efforts of self-determination, even at the local level.
Corporate personhood is the legal fiction that corporate entities are “persons,” entitled to the constitutional rights originally intended solely for human beings. On Jan. 25, Cleveland Heights held its fourth annual Democracy Day public hearing, created by the 2013 ballot initiative that called for a U.S. constitutional amendment stating, “Corporations are not people and money is not speech.”
In 2015, the city of Cleveland Heights moved to privatize its water department, but backed off in the face of community opposition. Despite that strong negative response, last summer the city privatized its building department, turning it over to SAFEbuilt, a Colorado-based company now owned by the private equity firm Riverside.
As state governments have squeezed funding to cities in recent years, the trend toward privatizing municipal services has accelerated. With the Republican sweep to control all branches of the federal government added to that party’s control of 32 state legislatures and 33 governorships, pressure to privatize can only be expected to intensify.
In our July column, “Take Back the CH Building Department,” we outlined some specific concerns about privatizing a municipal service that has been a net revenue generator for the city for many decades. There may be time to reverse this: Cleveland Heights can withdraw from its three-year contract with SAFEbuilt on July 1, 2017, giving 120 days notice.
As the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes wraps up its 50th-anniversary year, we wish to reflect on the struggle that birthed it—a struggle that succeeded in preserving the wetland along the border of Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights and, indeed, both cities as we know them today.
Were it not for seven years of sustained effort by residents, elected officials and members of civic organizations, Cleveland’s near east side and adjacent suburbs would have been chopped into fragments by a heavily promoted system of freeways.
Announced in 1963, the [freeway] plan was the brainchild of Cuyahoga County Engineer Albert S. Porter, who also chaired the county Democratic Party. It consisted of four multi-lane, limited-access highways, all of them passing through some portion of Cleveland Heights.
We’ve enjoyed covering a variety of subjects during the first six months of this column. Readers—even a couple who haven’t agreed with us—have been generous and kind, in person and in writing. Many thanks to you all. This month, we’ll recap topics addressed to date in this column, and close with an appeal.
June: How “public” is public education? In our debut column, we highlighted testimony by two Cleveland Heights High School seniors at the third annual Democracy Day public hearing before Cleveland Heights City Council. Emma Schubert and Elijah Snow-Rackley, members of the Heights Coalition for Public Education, presented evidence of the negative impact on CH-UH public schools of high-stakes testing, vouchers and charter schools. The Heights Coalition for Public Education continues its excellent work. Learn more about the coalition’s work, and sign its position statement at http://chuh.net/coalition/.
July: Take back the CH Building Department. Citing more-stringent state licensing requirements for building inspectors, the city of Cleveland Heights outsourced its building department last summer to SAFEbuilt, a corporation founded in Colorado that is now owned by private equity firm Riverside.
For 101 years, the City of Cleveland Heights has purchased water from the City of Cleveland and marked it up for resale to its residents and businesses. Most University Heights residents and businesses—with the exception of 700 UH households, which are part of the Cleveland Heights water distribution system—have paid Cleveland directly, without their city serving as middleman.
As of Jan. 1, 2017, Cleveland Heights will join 67 other direct service communities in Northeast Ohio, and the city will be out of the water business. Water bills, which have climbed over the past year to cover the Cleveland Heights Water Department’s growing deficit, will actually drop slightly. Rates will fall more sharply when the deficit is retired after seven years.
Things might have gone very differently had the community not come together to send a large corporation packing and keep an essential utility in public hands. We are just two of many who gave their time to this fight.
On Sept. 14, State Representatives Kent Smith (District 8) and Nickie Antonio (District 13) announced their primary co-sponsorship in the Ohio House of Representatives of a resolution calling on “legislators at the state and federal level and other communities and jurisdictions to support an amendment to the United States Constitution that would abolish corporate personhood and the doctrine of money as speech.”
Also present at the Sept. 14 press announcement, held in South Euclid, were 30 Move to Amend supporters, and State Senator Michael Skindell (District 23) who introduced an identical resolution, SR 187, in the Ohio Senate in 2015. State Rep. Janine Boyd (District 9), who represents Cleveland Heights, University Heights and Shaker Heights, is one of 11 co-sponsors of the House resolution, which has not yet been assigned a number. The text of SR 187 is here: http://bit.ly/2d3ywoj.
Why this resolution, and why now?
In mid-August, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) cut bus service and hiked fares again. If you use public transit, you are spending more time and more money getting where you need to go. Those who have a choice are less likely to choose RTA when it is inconvenient, expensive, and doesn't take them right to their destination. But, if you depend on public transportation, you probably already have greater difficulty getting to work, medical care, school and grocery stores.
The cost of a single bus or rapid transit ride has risen from $2.25 to $2.50, and will go up again, to $2.75, in 2018. Transfers are no longer available. A monthly pass went from $85 to $95, and in 2018 it will cost $105.
In Cleveland Heights and University Heights, RTA has shortened four bus routes:
We’re writing this column over the Fourth of July weekend. It seems a good time to reflect on the importance of the rule of law to our democratic system. Legislatures, which we elect, make law; court systems adjudicate that law. It is a highly imperfect system in which tragic mistakes are made daily, but we have not yet found a better method by which to govern ourselves. Our legal system operates from the municipal level up to the state and then the federal level. The U.S. Supreme Court has the final word.
Or does it?
To shed light on this question, we reviewed some testimony presented to Cleveland Heights City Council at the third annual Democracy Day public hearing held last Jan. 21. Stewart Robinson and Dean Sieck addressed the threat that international trade mechanisms TISA and ISDS pose to municipalities like University Heights and Cleveland Heights.
On a warm May evening last year, about 230 Cleveland Heights residents packed a meeting room at the Community Center to oppose the city’s move to lease its water system to a private, for-profit corporation. When more than 200 people show up at a meeting on short notice, you can assume each of them represents many more who were unable to be there.
City council members listened to their constituents and went back to the drawing board. As a result, in January 2017, Cleveland Heights will join more than 70 Northeast Ohio communities that get their water directly from the Cleveland Water Department, resulting in substantial savings for residents and businesses.
Flash forward a year or so. Beginning this month, the city will contract out its building department operations to Colorado-based SAFEbuilt, a private, for-profit corporation.
Welcome to Heights of Democracy, a new column that will explore the meaning and practice of democracy locally, in Cleveland Heights and University Heights. We will tackle questions such as: How have grassroots efforts by Heights individuals and groups promoted civic involvement and democracy in our communities? How do neighbors work together to make life better for everyone? How do residents interact with our municipal governments? What local governance practices might elicit increased and more-effective citizen participation? How is our local autonomy enhanced or limited by state and federal policies and economic priorities? If you have topics to suggest that shed light on these issues, we’d love to hear from you.
For decades, Heights citizens have been passionately and effectively involved in our communities, often resisting powerful interests, from stopping the Clark and Lee freeways in the 1960s, to fighting racially based blockbusting in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. The Heights Coalition for Public Education is a grassroots group working in this tradition, as two young members illustrated early this year.